Capital and labor are mobile in Alberta energy hotspots

The economic crisis is reviving Alberta desire for stronger livelihoods that inspired former premier Peter Lougheed’s 1970s and ’80s industrial diversification policy

August 01, 2009

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Out where the products are extracted and shipped, the role of fossil fuels in Alberta livelihoods is clear. At the Hardisty oil pipeline and trading hub southeast of Edmonton, a 388-bed camp for workers building growth projects has increased the town population by about 50 per cent and raised the tone of travel accommodations.

Even in the global economic slump, energy employers provide immaculate rooms, hotel-like creature comforts and professionally prepared cuisine to keep the skilled talent needed by industrial projects. Annual incomes often still run into six digits.

But there is no complacency in this energy hot spot. The camp radiates a message that the engine of growth is mobile and never guaranteed to stay still. The sprawling structure comes apart fast in truckload-sized units that can be easily shipped elsewhere.

Albertans get the message. “From January to April, it was absolutely dead in this town,” says Bonnie Whidden, president of Hardisty Business Group and owner of Country Inspirations, a tea and antiques emporium. “The crash really affected all the businesses here.”

The global credit and energy price meltdowns did not make Enbridge Inc. and TransCanada Corp. stop their Hardisty pipeline and tank construction programs. But workers, local contractors, farmers and merchants got a whiff of the potential for sudden setback that is all too familiar in a province renowned for resource boom’n’bust cycles. “A lot of people were playing it safe and hanging onto their money,” says Whidden.

While she reports trade is picking up again, the crisis is reviving Alberta desire for stronger livelihoods that inspired former premier Peter Lougheed’s 1970s and ’80s industrial diversification policy.

“We can’t rely totally on the oil,” Whidden says as she outlines plans from rehabilitating old main street buildings to town marketing drives. The work camp’s residents likewise voice hopes of breaking old habits of exporting raw natural resources for the lowest costs and fastest profits possible.

In the eyes of Gordon Rees, an electrician installing control systems in gargantuan new Hardisty oil storage tanks, an emerging international division of energy industry roles is more dangerous than the latest financial fiasco. Such skilled workers are natural allies of employers and local government leaders in Alberta areas where refineries and petrochemical plants are economic mainstays.

Like the Industrial Heartland Association northeast of Edmonton, Rees wants new policies to counter the trend of exporting a growing share of the oil sands in the form of Alberta’s crudest product, bitumen. The result is upgrading plants built and manned by thousands of rival workers in the United States, and maybe in Asia unless the right conditions go into approvals for new pipeline and tanker port plans.

“Bit by bit we’re just selling our country out. We’ve got to take control of our own destiny. We’ve got to think long term,” Rees says. To visit places where the oil and gas action happens is to be remin-ded that the financial institutions which own most energy company shares are not the only legitimate interests affected by the industry.

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